Cooper Reflects On MX-5 Championship, Uses It To Extend His Racing Career

TOPEKA, Kan. – Racing seasons don’t always live up to expectations, but when your expectations are only to continue to learn and drive as fast as possible, the season is bound to be a success.

Mike Cooper celebrates his championship with the Playmates (Al Merion photo)

A driver that takes those goals, grows throughout the winter and even more during the season, and leaves 2011 as the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup Champion has exceeded all expectations and is well on his way to a long and successful racing career.

This year, Mike Cooper is that driver.

“It feels nice to have the success that we had,” Cooper said. “Last year, there were some thoughts about [winning a championship], but they were just that – thoughts. I never thought it would be a possibility that year. And honestly, coming into this year, Justin [Hall] was coming in, Jason [Saini] was coming in. It was in the back of my mind, but I was just trying not to think about it.”

Unlike many young racers, the 22-year-old Cooper didn’t grow up at the racetrack, climbing into a kart before he could even walk. Counting two seasons of MX-5 Cup competition, his racing experience totals, well, two seasons of MX-5 Cup competition.

After a driving school, Cooper ran three weekends of the Skip Barber MX-5 Series during the winter of 2010, and decided to run the MX-5 Cup season with Atlanta Motorsports Group just a couple of weeks before the season began.

Cooper won once and finished third in the points as a rookie, then won the 2011 opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his No. 6 AMG Racing Mazda MX-5 to cement himself as a real contender for the season-long title.

“The first year was absolutely huge,” Cooper explained. “I’d never been on slicks before, or anything like it. Going to each track, I have to learn the track, and learn the car, and get the car setup. I couldn’t do all three, so it was kind of pick the two you want and you’re ousted on the third – which is generally the setup on the car. I always struggled in that aspect last year.”

The year of experience clearly made a difference for the Syosset, N.Y. native. It was early in the season when Cooper decided he might have a real shot at a championship.

“When we were at Atlanta [for Round Two], during practice, seeing the times we were doing and what was left on the table in terms of tire performance, I think that’s when it clicked for me that I could be the dominant driver in the series for the year.”

Clicked was an understatement, as Cooper went on to five wins, two additional podium finishes, and six pole positions in a hotly contested season.

Cooper attributed most of his success to the team at AMG, not just for the car they prepare, but for the additional help that the team, like owner Jason Hoover, provide. Backing that up is the team’s last three seasons, capturing championships with Todd Lamb (2009), Brad Rampelberg (2010), and now Cooper.

“If you go up and down the paddock, the cars are all the same in terms of spec,” Cooper said. “It’s how the car is prepared, how Jason and the team prepare the car so well, and how he can communicate with who is driving the car and what they want. I think that’s the biggest thing that was learned last year, and it wasn’t executed so well last year by myself.”

The most important lesson from the season is that a driver that didn’t grow up on the path to Formula One can begin a professional career in the affordable SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup.

“The competition is tight, and the cars are a great learning tool because you can get out of those cars and go to pretty much any kind of sports car and be right on the pace when you jump in,” Cooper explained. “The camaraderie within a team like Atlanta Motorsports Group really helps an experienced driver or an inexperienced driver get up to speed and show their potential.”

For now, though, the NYIT business school student is working on the next step of his career, which includes a funded ride up the MAZDASPEED Motorsports ladder thanks to his championship.

“There’s nothing to announce officially, but we’re definitely looking forward to racing a Mazda product and representing the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Development division next year,” Cooper said. “We’re looking to Grand-Am and World Challenge to see what our options are.”

That’s another lesson in his career – the off-season business of motorsports.

“I’m building those relationships and getting that experience of being one-on-one with someone like John Doonan [Director of Motorsports at Mazda North American Operations] or Jim Jordan [Alternative Marketing Manager at Mazda], and getting the business experience side of things.“

It may seem quick, but it hasn’t come easy for Cooper. Naturally, there are a lot of people who have helped in the two years and beyond, but some stand out.

“I have to thank my mom and dad and my family for being so supportive,” Cooper said. “Coming to some of the weekends, or just supporting me to get there and mentally off the track, they’ve been great. And the whole team at AMG – Jason, Micah, Tony, Jacob, Mark and all the crew members from the last two years who have done so much, I couldn’t have done it without them.”

And with Cooper moving on in 2012, a championship-level seat has come open in the AMG stable.

“Obviously, that’s three championships in a row for the team, and they’re looking for the next in line to bring up the MAZDASPEED ladder.”

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